How Democratic is the Presidential Primary Process?

Los Angeles, CA (TFC) – Last week, Donald Trump made very interesting statements during a speech in Rome, New York and claimed that both the Republican and Democratic primaries are rigged and undemocratic. I previously wrote about how rhetoric like this is probably intended to set the stage for Donald Trump to leave the Republican Party to launch an independent presidential campaign. However, during this election cycle, it would appear that many people, in both parties, have asked this question. This issue has become so salient that the media has been discussing this issue. As a result, a serious investigation into this topic is warranted.

In 1968, the Democratic National Convention erupted into violence and chaos when party bosses opted to select Hubert Humphrey as their presidential nominee. This move was very controversial because Humphrey had not even entered into a single primary and his main competitor, Eugene McCarthy, had won the most primaries. As a result, this decision was decried as undemocratic and split the party, setting the stage for a disastrous general election for the Democrats. This episode convinced the Democrats of the need to reform their nomination process and the McGovern-Fraser Commission was established to provide recommendations to this end. The Democratic Party ultimately instituted reforms that were supposed to reduce the influence of party bosses in the nomination process. The Republican Party soon followed suit. This gave rise to the modern-day presidential primary system.

Concerns about the democratic nature of the presidential primary process have once again come to the fore during this election season. Donald Trump has explicitly claimed that the GOP primaries are rigged. While I believe that he is only saying this because he is losing momentum, upon examination of the GOP nomination process, I am sympathetic to these claims. The Republican Party bosses appear to exercise influence over the nomination process through the rules of the primary process. One rule that influences the election is how delegates are awarded to candidates in a primary contest. In some states, the candidate who wins the primary wins all of the delegates from that state. In others, the delegates are awarded based upon the proportion of the vote that the candidate won in that state. Lastly, in some states, the delegates are awarded proportionally, but a candidate must obtain a certain percentage of the vote in order to win any delegates. Many have criticized these rules because they claim that they have been used to give an advantage to certain candidates. For example, Florida, which has a significant number of delegates, is a “winner take all” state. Critics argue that the decision to make Florida a winner take all state, while awarding delegates from less important states on a proportional basis, favored establishment favorites, like Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio. As a result, they would argue that these rules are arbitrary and unduly influence the primary process.

The Republican Party bosses have responded to these accusations. Reince Priebus, the Chairman of the Republican National Committee, has argued that the rules of the nomination process have not changed. As a result, he would argue that the Republican Party has not used the rules to influence the outcome of the primaries.

However, there are serious problems with this response. First, this response is entirely irrelevant to the accusations that have been made. Critics of the Republican primary process are arguing that the established rules have the effect of favoring establishment candidates, not that the rules have been arbitrary changed to help certain candidates. As a result, Reince Priebus’ response does not address these concerns. In addition, Priebus’ response is also misleading. As I have previously written, there are some important rules, which could influence the primary process that can still be changed before the Republican National Convention. As a result, it would appear that Reince Priebus’ claims do not hold up to scrutiny.

Bernie Sanders fans have also questioned the fairness of the Democratic primary process. Most of these concerns have revolved around superdelegates. In the Democratic primaries, candidates try to win state primaries so that they can earn pledged delegates, who are allocated based on the number of votes the candidate received. However, each state also has superdelegates, who are party insiders, that can vote for the candidate of their choosing at the Democratic National Convention. In the Democratic primary process, there are 4770 delegates in total, of which 719 are superdelegates. The superdelegates comprise 15% of the total delegate count, which is significant. Critics of this system, argue that it is undemocratic because a candidate could potentially win a majority of the pledged delegates but still fail to win the nomination if a majority of the superdelegates vote for one of their opponents.

Scene_at_the_Signing_of_the_Constitution_of_the_United_States (1)The Democratic Party has defended the superdelegates by arguing that they have never changed the outcome of the nomination process. Since 1968, no candidate who has won the majority of the pledged delegates has ever failed to win the nomination. However, while this statement may be true, critics of the superdelegates would still probably be disturbed by the theoretical possibility of superdelegates overturning the popular vote.  In addition, concerns have been raised by revelations that some of the superdelegates are registered lobbyists.  Lastly, the presence of the superdelegates can still influence the outcome of the primary process. If a candidate is able to win over a large portion of the superdelegates early in the primary season, then it would give them an artificial lead at the beginning of the race. This is problematic because it could make them an early frontrunner and create the perception that the candidate’s nomination is inevitable, regardless of how well they have performed in the state primaries up until that point.

Unfortunately, this perception can actually influence voter behavior. If a candidate gains a large early lead through the superdelegates, then the supporters of other candidates might come to the conclusion that their candidate cannot win the nomination. This could induce them to stay away from the polls. Even worse, it could erroneously convince people that everyone else is voting for the frontrunner and induce them to join the perceived bandwagon. This is problematic because it gives candidates who can win superdelegates early in the race a huge advantage. Since the superdelegates are party insiders who have close connections with the party bosses, this raises the possibility that party bosses could influence who the superdelegates support. This should raise questions about the ability of the party leadership to influence the nomination process. These concerns become especially salient in light of recent comments from the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, in which she claims that superdelegates exist “to make sure that party officials and elected officials don’t have to be in a position where they are running against grassroots activists…”

As a result, it appears that forces, other than the voters, can and do influence the outcome of the primary process in both parties. This is disturbing as it creates a façade of democracy, when in reality party bosses heavily influence the outcome of the primaries. This runs contrary to the values that both parties claim to have. As a result, voters from both parties should demand greater transparency and reform of the primary process.